As pings go silent, Robotic sub joins search for Malaysian jet

Autonomous underwater Bluefin-21 dives this morning into hunt for missing Flight 370

Failing to hear any further pings from the missing Malaysian airliner, searchers today began using an autonomous underwater torpedo-shaped robot.

"I guess it's time to go underwater," retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, head of Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Center, told a press conference this morning. "I would caution you against raising hopes that the deployment of the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle will result in the detection of the aircraft wreckage. It may not. However, this is the best lead we have and it must be pursued vigorously."

The Bluefin-21
The Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater robot went into the water for the first time today in the search for the missing Malaysian Flight 370. (Image: Bluefin Technologies)

Last week, searchers detected electronic signals that may have come from the missing plane and moved to a smaller search area. The signals disappeared about six days ago.

The batteries are only certified to emit high-pitched signals for 30 days after initially being submerged in water. The search has now entered day 38.

As many as 11 military aircraft, one civil aircraft and 15 ships are participating in today's search for Flight 370, which has been missing since March 8 and carried 239 people.

Houston said the air and surface search for floating material will end in the next two to three days in the area where searchers believe the aircraft most likely entered the water. The chance of finding any floating material has "greatly diminished," he said.

Now the focus of the search is on the Bluefin-21 autonomous robot.

The Australian ship Ocean Shield this morning deployed the robotic Bluefin-21, built by Quincy, Mass.-based Bluefin Robotics Corp. and owned by Phoenix International Holdings, a marine services contractor. The Bluefin-21 carries batteries, cameras and sensors, along with sonar and echosounder equipment to detect wreckage or signs of an anchor or airplane parts that had been dragged across the ocean floor.

The robot also uses GPS and has a 4GB flash drive for onboard data storage.

The robot will produce a high resolution, three dimensional map of the sea floor.

Houston noted that the Bluefin-21 will be sent on multiple 24-hour-plus missions. "It will take the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle two hours to get down to the bottom of the ocean," he added. "It will then be on task for 16 hours. It will then take two hours to return to the surface and four hours to download and analyze the data collected."

The search area is about 1,300 miles northwest of Perth, Australia.

"The search area, because we have got one vehicle and we go mission for mission for mission, we will adapt the search area depending on what we find on the bottom of the ocean," said Houston. "So over time, each time the vehicle goes down, it will have a defined search area. But what we do is we start from the best datum and we work outwards from there."

According to Bluefin, the robot comes with a Windows-based tool suite that handles vehicle testing, mission planning, vehicle communications, mission monitoring and execution, data management, and post-mission analysis.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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